III. Philanthropy and Public Life

Left: The Mary Ward House in Tavistock Square, originally called the Passmore Edwards Settlement. Right: Ward's name above the main entrance. [Click on all images to enlarge them, and in this case for their source.]

As her death notice in the Times would state, Mary Augusta Ward "added to her distinction as a novelist many public-spirited activities" (16): in other words, she not only wrote about social problems in novels like Robert Elsmere, but tried to find practical solutions to them. Once in London, she was in contact with others actively involved with London's poor. With funds from the sale of the American rights of The History of David Grieve at her disposal, Ward was able to set in motion a new project — a working-class settlement in the very heart of Bloomsbury. She was inspired by the Toynbee Hall settlement in the East End, and hoped to spread among the poorer members of the community the kind of undogmatic Christianity that she herself believed in, at the same time improving their quality of life in practical ways. In 1897, thanks to the generosity of the philanthropist Passmore Edwards, a fine purpose-built centre was opened in Tavistock Square under the new name of the Passmore Edwards Settlement. Here she made some lasting contributions to society, notably by pioneering nurseries and after-school recreation facilities for the children of working mothers, and care for handicapped children, awakening local authorities to the need to institute such facilities themselves.

Marcella Marcella with Mrs Hurd

Left: "I felt that the whole state of things is somehow wrong and topsy-turvy and wicked." This caption is quoted from I: 177, in the episode in which a passionate Marcella shocks guests at a genteel gathering by talking about "unseemly" matters like poverty and poaching (I: 180). Source: Marcella, Vol. I, frontispiece. Right: Marcella with Mrs Hurd, the poacher's wife, and her sickly, dying son Willie — her presence not entirely appreciated. Source: Marcella, Vol. II, frontispiece.

Seeing herself "as a morally and socially concerned novelist in the mould of George Eliot," whom she had met early on in Oxford, Ward found it natural to be "at the heart of the country's cultural life, leading from the front and promoting reform" (Ashton 70). But, despite all that she achieved, she has not been much fêted as a social reformer. This may be partly because of her own now very comfortable lifestyle. She entertained on a large scale, and "the showy opulence of her houses, servants and shooting parties brought her few friends among the young," say Dinah Birch (13). She herself acknowledged the anomalous position of the idealistic do-gooder from a well-to-do background. Her part-autobiographical heroine Marcella, for example, with her diamond engagement ring sparkling on her ungloved hand, cuts a strange figure amid scenes of abject poverty. Marcella does little but assuage her own cares by visiting the family of a crippled poacher, condemned to death for mistakenly shooting a gamekeeper, and the narrator indicates that her presence is "a burden and constraint" to the wife at such a time, keeping away the villagers whose "homelier speech and simpler consolations" would have been more of a comfort to her (I: 489). With some justice, Marcella's father warns her that she is making herself "ridiculous" by her behaviour (I: 491). It is typical of Ward, and much to her credit, that she should examine Marcella's (and hence, surely, her own) motivation and usefulness so honestly, though there is no doubt of the eventual worth of both the heroine's and the author's commitment.

More importantly, Ward's reputation has been undermined by her anti-suffrage stance. She was, of course, vehemently in favour of women's education. In Helbeck of Bannisdale, for instance, the heroine Laura Fountain has been allowed to conduct her own education according to her own whims. She has been brought up a free-thinker, but lacks the intellectual resources to establish her own position firmly, and, after the death of her academic father, has nothing to sustain her. Tragically, she ends up committing suicide. "For Heaven's sake, why do we leave our children's minds empty like this?" cries a Cambridge friend of her father's. "If you believe, my good friend, Educate! And if you doubt, still more — Educate! Educate!" (368). But education here is urged as a means of strengthening women in the new age of angst, not to prepare them for public life, at least on the national level. On that, they were to exert their influence only indirectly. Ward was by no means alone in this view. When she signed the protest against suffrage in the Nineteenth Century of June 1889, hers was one of over a hundred distinguished names, including those of Lady Randolph Churchill, Mrs Leslie Stephen, Mrs Kegan Paul, Miss Beatrix Potter, Mrs W. Bagehot, Mrs Alma-Tadema, Mrs Matthew Arnold and Mrs Arnold Toynbee, collectively said by the editor to represent "a fair sample of the judgement of the educated women of the country" ("An Appeal," 788). But, generally conservative in her opinions, and ever eager to please powerful male friends, it was she who agreed to take the lead in expressing this opposition. Instrumental in founding the Women's National Anti-Suffrage League in 1908, she also founded and edited the Anti-Suffrage Review, and founded also the "Joint Advisory Council of Members of Parliament and Women Social Workers," which aimed to give women a voice without the aid of the vote.

As so many critics then and since have pointed out (see for example Van Wingerden 62), this was hugely ironic in one who expressed her own political views so forcefully. For example, she distributed thousands of propagandist Letters to My Neighbours (1910) for the West Hertford constituency when Arnold was standing (successfully) for the conservative party there. Recent critics have struggled to resolve the anomaly by bringing her closer to the feminist fold, suggesting that "Ward's reforming imagination, commitment to women's service, and sympathetic literary depiction of friendships between women, the hallmarks of much of her fiction, lend weight to the argument that there is more common ground between suffragettes and 'Antis' than is sometimes supposed" (Joannu 2-3; see also n.7 for recent work in this area). But there is no doubt that her position on this important matter has told against her.

Related Material


"An Appeal against Female Suffrage." . Vol. XXV. No. 148 (June 1889): 781-88. Internet Archive. Web. 4 November 2013.

Ashton, Rosemary. Victorian Bloomsbury. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2012. Print.

Birch, Dinah. "The Great Mary" (Review of Sutherland's biography of Ward). London Review of Books. 13 September 1990, 13-14. Online Archive. Web. 4 November 2013.

The Bloomsbury Project: Institutions: The Passmore Edwards Settlement. Web. 4 November 2013.

Joannou, Maroula. "Mary Augusta Ward and the Opposition to Women's Suffrage." 1-24. Anglia Ruskin Research Online. Web. 4 November 2013.

"Mrs Humphry Ward: Her Art as a Novelist. Public-Spirited Activities." Times. 25 March 1920, p. 16. Times Digital Archive. Web. 4 November 2013.

_____. Mrs Humphry Ward: Eminent Victorian, Pre-Eminent Edwardian. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990. Print.

Van Wingerden, Sophia. The Women's Suffrage Movement in Britain, 1866-1928. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. Print.

Ward, Mrs Humphry. Helbeck of Bannisdale. 7th ed. London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1908. Internet Archive. Web. 4 November 2013.

_____. Marcella, Vol. I. Writings of Mrs Humphry Ward. Vol. V. Boston & New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1911. Internet Archive. Web. 4 November 2013.

_____. Marcella, Vol. II. Writings of Mrs Humphry Ward. Vol. VI. Boston & New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1911. Internet Archive. Web. 4 November 2013.

Last modified 4 November 2013